Florida budget counts on federal, state money for storm recovery

Southwest Florida journalists document Hurricane Michael as part of roof from hotel blows off on Oct. 10, 2018. Andrew West, News-Press

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed budget banks on at least $1.5 billion in federal money for Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Michael, a total the governor’s office anticipates could go up as damage estimates continue to mount from both storms.

DeSantis on Friday introduced a $91.3 billion budget proposal for the 2019-2020 fiscal year that includes at least $323.6 million in state funding tied to the two storms. The money would go to needs such as debris collection, housing and educational programs.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would put up an estimated $561.7 million for Irma and $942.6 million for Michael.

And those figures could increase as the state still recovers from Irma, which barreled through much of the state in 2017, and Michael, which devastated parts of Northwest Florida in October.

“We’re still paying for things regarding Hurricane Irma, a lot of money for the Panhandle,” DeSantis said Friday. “I’ve been successful in getting the federal government to up its share of that already. And I anticipate we’re going to try to do more.”

The proposed budget, according to releases from the governor’s office, includes such expenses as $4.5 million for marine debris removal and $44.4 million for marine fisheries disaster recovery, which would all come from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Another $44 million would continue grant programs directed at displaced students, restarting school operations and assisting homeless children.

The current operating budget, which runs through June 30, has $140 million for the three education grant programs.

The state also expects to spend tens of millions of dollars on helping people displaced from damaged homes, with the state’s portion of the costs $27.3 million for Irma and “so far” $20 million for Michael. The state would pick up 25 percent of total costs, while FEMA covers 75 percent.

DeSantis, a political ally of President Donald Trump, has gotten the White House to expand the amount of debris-removal costs picked up by the federal government after Michael. The Trump administration agreed to pay 100 percent of debris-removal costs for 45 days, up from an initial 100 percent for five days.

The state was approved for 35 days of 100 percent FEMA reimbursement for debris collection following Irma, which hit more of the state but left less debris than Michael.

Outside the full coverage amounts, the state is in line for 75 percent federal reimbursement of costs.

State officials have also been pushing Congress to craft a post-Michael disaster relief package similar to one that was put together with a focus on the citrus industry following Hurricane Irma, which left an estimated $2.5 billion in agriculture losses in Florida.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has estimated Michael inflicted $1.5 billion in damages to agricultural interests in Florida, mostly on timber, which is a major industry in rural Northwest Florida.

DeSantis’ proposed budget is considered a starting point for the Legislature, which will piece together the budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year during the 60-day session that begins March 5.

In outlining his spending plan, the governor’s office mixed in current-year funding with the upcoming year, such as $36 million put up by the state for housing assistance for communities recovering from hurricanes and a $765.5 million federal Community Development Block Grant for disaster recovery that will continue to be steered throughout the state.

Included in the federal block grant is $273.3 million for housing repairs for low- and moderate-income families impacted by Irma.

The state Department of Economic Opportunity will use $75 million of the grant for risk reduction by hiring a team to work with counties interested in buying homes in high flood-risk areas. The state agency will also get $20 million from the block grant to buy land for affordable workforce housing, $20 million for hurricane-recovery workforce training, $60 million to help businesses seeking reimbursement for storm-damaged equipment and inventory and $6 million to assist entrepreneurs and new businesses from Puerto Rico, which saw an exodus of people to Florida after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017.

The governor’s proposed budget will appear before a number of legislative committees this week, including the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday and the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

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